Oil Palm Development Marches On: How much is too much forest destruction?

By Margaret Ran

David Dellatore has faced much criticism for his willingness to work with palm oil companies.  NGO’s on the ground in Indonesia face a very different reality than advocacy groups far from the jungle, who tend to call for boycotts of environmentally damaging palm oil, or demand that palm oil be phased out of all consumer products.  For a small NGO like the Orangutan Information Center, where Dellatore works, securing funding for their activities, such as caring for orphaned orangutans or reforesting small patches of Gunung Leuser National Park, is always a challenge, and oil palm companies have plenty of cash on hand. The general consensus of local NGO’s in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest palm oil producer commanding 40% of the global oil palm market, is that oil palm plantations are a fact of life in Indonesia, and conservation groups must work hand-in-hand with oil palm companies.

So the meeting of conservation groups and palm oil companies this week in the Malaysian province of Sabah was not a surprise.  The oil palm industry is a giant in both Malaysia and Indonesia, and forest conservation groups believe they can make big gains in forest and wildlife protections if they convince the industry as a whole to adapt forest and forest people friendly policies.

After two days of meetings, conservation groups are touting a big gain in forest protection with the palm oil industry adopting a new policy to construct forest zones 100m from major rivers, and corridors to connect fragmented forests.

The WWF and the Nature Conservancy both proclaimed victory, and called for additional collaborations between conservation groups and the oil palm industry.

Surly, there are always positives to be gained when the representatives of two sides of an issues sit down at the table. But in this case, there are serious signs that WWF and the Nature Conservancy are being naïve in proclaiming progress.

Comments from oil palm representatives at the meeting in Sabah continued the industry’s dogged refusal to acknowledge the serious impacts of their oil palm operations; Malaysia’s Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities claimed that oil palm does not cause deforestation, destroy biodiversity, or displace orangutans.  And the meeting was organized by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, who’s CEO still maintains that oil palm plantations are good for orangutans and their ‘shiny coats’. But all scientists who study orangutans have testified to their negative impacts on orangutan populations.

Looking at the bigger picture, Indonesia’s efforts to expand to 10 million hectares of oil palm makes David Dellatore’s NGO’s efforts to convince two oil palm companies to pay for the reforestation of 150 hectares of Gunung Leuser National Park look questionable.

And when you consider that laws already exist to protect all forest within 50 meters of rivers on oil palm plantations, the new oil palm industry policy to protect an additional 50 meters of forest along rivers does not seem to be much of a compromise. And those forest corridors? Forest corridors are indeed important to conserve the ecological function of Indonesia’s tropical forests, but what good will forest corridors be if there is no forest left?

I wonder if these tiny advances, claimed to be victories in the protection of forests by major conservation groups, only serve to distract from the fact that the oil palm industry is destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary tropical forest each year, and hundreds of thousands of hectares more of ecologically and economically important agro-forests, orchards, and small-scale farms are flattened.

The oil palm industry must be held to a non-negotiable and surprisingly simple commitment: no more oil palm plantation expansion in tropical forests.  Rather than spend our time developing complex conservation plans and negotiating over tiny policy changes with oil palm plantations, lets support local people’s ability to refuse oil palm plantations on their lands, and act as watchdogs over the oil palm industry to ensure they do not flatten any more tropical forests.